When (and How) to Effectively use Controversial Advertising

We’ve all see one:  A shocking advertisement that flashes across our screen in between moments from our favorite TV show or accosting us as we’re going about our day, minding our business until we see it in a magazine or on a billboard.

A controversial advertisement.

Dictionary.com defines controversy as a “prolonged public dispute, debate, or contention; [a] disputation concerning a matter of opinion.” We know controversial topics are sensitive. They’re the ones that we “don’t talk about at work” or joke about trying to avoid discussing at Thanksgiving with extended family. These topics stem from religious beliefs, political affiliations, ethical and moral beliefs, and more.

As marketers, we often want to avoid offending our target audience—in fact, we make concerted efforts to test and view our ads from every angle to find the one that will resonate with them the most.

So why would we want to purposely offend, or risk offending, our audience?

We don’t—because that’s not the purpose of controversial advertising.

According to the HubSpot article “Should Your Brand Use Controversial Advertising? 5 Examples to Help You Decide,” “Controversial advertising doesn’t aim to polarize an audience. It’s an attention-grabbing technique for stating an opinion, and brands use it to spark conversations about certain moral values.”

Before you decide if you want to create a controversial advertisement, there are some things you need to understand before you diving into creative development.  

The Pros and Cons

There is always going to be a calculated risk when it comes to putting a controversial ad out into the public for your current—and potential—customers to see. When done correctly, advertising can strengthen the loyalty your current customers feel, especially if they share the values the ad promotes. It can also pave new channels to reach new customers, especially when it shows support and solidarity. Know that there will always be people who will take offense to your advertisement no matter what side of the spectrum it falls on.

But you don’t want to take it too far.

Today, we see a lot of contention regarding body positivity and loving your body no matter what shape or size while on the other hand, many believe such a movement is disastrous to one’s well being. PETA has been known for its controversial ads, two of which (one in 2009 and one again in 2014) tried to tell people to lose weight by going vegetarian. It was shocking, but instead of being successful in making the point, it seemed to bully and demean—which is not what a well-executed controversial ad will do.

So, how do you decide if it’s worth the risk?

The When and How of Controversial Advertising

Like any campaign, you’ll need to take care in making sure you execute it successfully. But when it comes to a campaign or single advertisement that may address a controversial topic, you’ll need to be extra careful in deciding whether to pursue it.

You should run with your controversial ad if…

  • It doesn’t necessarily choose a side.  Sometimes an ad will just “spark the conversation,” and while it may seem to lean to one side over the other, it doesn’t necessarily have to definitively choose a side. And that’s likely a better move for your brand. Instead of risking alienating some of your audience, you can offer points of discussion and join the conversation but still maintain some type of neutrality. You’ll get exposure but avoid much of the backlash that you may experience if you explicitly take a side (but don’t be surprised if there are critics complaining that you didn’t take a side).

  • It speaks to one of your company’s values. When Nike created a new campaign based on Colin Kaepernick, there was a lot of contention on both sides. Kaepernick has been a controversial figure for the past few years, ever since he began—and was subsequently released from his contract for—kneeling during the National Anthem. And while there were people who were upset by this decision, it worked well for Nike, who got a high approval rate, especially among its target audience. And it aligns with Nike’s mission of inspiring athletes: While many disagreed with what Kaepernick did, there were those who were inspired by the dedication to his beliefs, even if it meant being unable to do what he loved.

  • You can help change perceptions. From cultural backgrounds to education to childhood upbringings, each individual has a set of beliefs that are the product of the aforementioned and more. Whether or not these perceptions and beliefs are “correct” shouldn’t necessarily be the point. Instead, you want to force your audience to see a topic from a different point of view or present them with an argument that supports the opposing side—one they may have never considered before. If you’re able to stop and make people think, even if it’s about a societally contentious topic, your brand will stick around in their minds.

You should not run with your controversial ad if…

  • Your brand doesn’t make sense with the controversial topic. There are some brands whose very existence are at the heart of modern controversies: Planned Parenthood, the NRA, GLAAD, political parties, religious organizations, and more. Some companies, while they are “neutral” in that they have nothing to do with such topics (think food products, cleaning products, or car manufacturers), still find opportunities to get creative and add to the discussion. Take Oreo for an example. In 2012, they posted a multi-colored crème Oreo cookie that represented the LGBT pride flag. Underneath the cookie was a date and the word “Pride.” Many said they would no longer purchase the cookie, but there were many others who praised the brand for showing solidarity with a community that is often marginalized. You’ll need to think about your brand and whether or not it makes sense for your brand to joining the discussion contribution; if not, you risk seeming disingenuous.

  • You’re just doing it to get the exposure. Marketers know the value of real-time marketing. It’s the ideal time to get your brand the exposure it needs by creating content that speaks to issues that are happening right at the moment. Because there is such a buzz, you’re likely to get more eyes on your content than any other time, and people are more likely to share your content as well But if you’re creating something only to take advantage of the exposure—without actually genuinely contributing to the conversation—you’re better off not creating anything at all.

  • You’re already standing on thin ice. If you’re still in some type of hot water, either because of bad press, a poorly worded tweet, or some other issue, it’s best not to push your luck. An audience can only be so loyal: They’re likely to quickly forgive you for a simple, innocent mistake, and they will also forgive you for bigger grievances than non-loyal individuals. But if you continue to make the same ill-guided efforts in your advertising or other marketing, they will no longer see it as a mistake but as deliberate ignorance.

I Want to Run my Controversial Ad. Now what?

After taking everything into consideration, hosting multiple brainstorms, re-writing copy and finding imagery, you’ve finally settled on an advertisement that works. You could have it on YouTube in less than five minutes. It can be up on your website in fewer than that. And it could be out in seconds if you published it across your social media channels. But before you hit enter and scatter it into cyberspace, take a moment to do the following:

Put it up for a focus group review. Would you rather upset a small group of people that you’re paying or a large group of people that pay you? The idea here is to hire a third-party agency that can conduct a focus group for you. For a small fee or other type of compensation, a group of 10 to 14 individuals will gather to share their thoughts on a particular topic. In this case, it would be your advertisement. The benefit is that you’ll receive insight into how your ad will perform once it’s published. You’ll hear honest, unfiltered opinions about whether you hit it right on target or need some serious refinement. The benefit? You can always make changes. But once it goes live, there’s no turning back.

Consider all possible outcomes. The benefit of a focus group is that you’ll hear your audience’s feedback. And since you haven’t actually published the advertisement yet, you can begin to prepare for all possible reactions. But even if you don’t test your advertisement against a focus group, you should still think about the reaction and press that you may get and how you can handle them—both good and bad—prior to actually launching your ad.

Take the Leap

Whether it’s your first or your fourth time publishing an ad that speaks to a controversial topic, it can always be an uneasy experience since you won’t truly have an idea of how your audience will react until the ad is out in public for their consumption. And while the saying goes that “no press is bad press,” you’ll want to make sure your ad is praised, not scorned. With the right creative idea, sound logical reasoning, and genuine intentions, you’re sure to make waves that will ripple back to your company in terms of positive feedback, a stronger customer-brand relationship, and improved profits.

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